Scientists from the Van Rijn committee: ‘Determining who is right is not our job’

One of the strongest reactions to the report of the Van Rijn committee, about inappropriate behavior in Hilversum, came from comedian Vera van Zelm. In a personal, eight-minute monologue during the radio program Nails with Heads she made a connection between public broadcaster employees who have had to deal with transgressive behavior, who were “crushed in a system”, and her experiences with sexism in the male-dominated world of stand-up comedy. “It’s actually no longer about who said what,” said Van Zelm. “What matters is that I started to believe it, that it got stuck in me, that I felt like an object more often than a colleague.”

The response is discussed during the Teams conversation with Naomi Ellemers, university professor and organizational psychologist at Utrecht University, and Femke Laagland, professor of employment law at Radboud University Nijmegen – the scientists in the Van Rijn committee. They were particularly impressed by the monologue. This reminded them of the probing conversations they had with victims of misconduct during the investigation. “People often feel very lonely,” says Ellemers. “They think it is their fault, that they are the only ones who have these problems, that they are acting out. No one says anything about it, nothing is done about it, so apparently no one minds.”

Ellemers and Laagland reflect on all the reactions that the long-awaited report of the Van Rijn committee has provoked over the past week. The conclusions have hit home hard in Hilversum. Three in four respondents appeared to have had to deal with inappropriate behavior in the past year. The severity and extent of the reported behavior led to widespread shock. Victims finally felt heard. A lively discussion arose about the work culture at the Media Park and how to change it. But the figures in the report and the research method also raised many questions. There was criticism of the fact that the committee only recorded complaints without seeking the truth.

What did you think of the responses?

Laagland: “We are actually happy with it. Certainly initially, the right things were picked up at the talk show tables, especially about the cultural change that needs to happen. And this came from the people themselves, without us having to say: this is such an important subject, look at that. Try not to focus too much on the people. When I looked at the talk show tables, I thought: there is so much desire to change the work culture. I thought that was really nice to see.”

Ellemers: “We had already received signals that not everyone who was considering sharing his or her experiences had actually registered with the committee. Some people were still afraid or thought nothing would change after all. So why would they stick their neck out? But since the presentation of the report, a surprising number of people have come forward to say: ‘I recognize this image’. I regard this as confirmation that transgressive behavior is a broad problem in public broadcasting, as we conclude in the report.”

The questionnaire was completed by approximately 2,500 broadcasting employees, while approximately 8,000 people were contacted. How representative is that?

Ellemers: “We don’t think that is a relevant question. Because the people who answered the questionnaire represent all broadcasters, ages and functions. So it’s not like we only received responses from hypersensitive interns. And that broad group of employees reports very similar things. In addition, we found the absolute number relevant. Because if 1,500 people say that they were victims or witnesses of inappropriate behavior in the past year, we think: whether it is representative or not, you will have to do something about it.”

Laagland: “Our glasses were a bit wider than Naomi says. Because in addition to the interviews and questionnaires, we also had conversations with broadcasting officials who fulfill the role of the employer, such as personnel managers, management and confidential counselors. They confirmed the image.”

The research chooses two perspectives: legal and psychological. Why is that?

Ellemers: “It is not common to combine a psychological and a legal approach. That is what is innovative about this research. And you can tell from the reactions that people are used to looking at it from a legal point of view: who did what and can we prove it? But we didn’t think that approach suited our assignment.”

Lowland: “No. And it may sound crazy coming from a lawyer, but we have tried not to legalize the subject. By this I mean that we mainly did not want to talk about incidents and who is liable for what. We wanted to broaden it in the context of work culture, and include the legal perspective. The employer’s duty of care was central.”

Was it also a factor that it is very time-consuming to verify all incidents?

Ellemers: “Yes, but that was not the consideration. We thought we wouldn’t solve the problem if we looked at it that way. Moreover, we wondered what facts we would establish, especially if they happened a long time ago. We did ask people to share their experiences. But we didn’t see it as our job to decide who is right. We just wanted to show that everyone has their own perspective, memory and justification. This social truth, so to speak, is more important than determining who did what. Because people may still sleep poorly years later. That is much more important to us.”

You said earlier that the committee was not concerned with finding the truth but with ‘social facts’. What are those?

Ellemers, laughing: “I came up with that word on the spot. It touches on a question that has often been asked about the figures in the report. If something happened once, and ten people report it, should you count it once or ten times? This has to do with our definition of transgressive behavior. The seriousness of an incident is not always apparent from the nature of the incident. It’s also about who does it, how often it is repeated and what impact it has on the organization. If you apply this broad definition from management literature, you should count one incident ten times if it affects ten people. Because that is the extent of the problem.”

Transgressive behavior is a broad concept. Most reports concerned gossip (66 percent). But much media attention was focused on the more serious examples from the report. Has this created a wrong impression?

Ellemers: “The word gossip may not fully describe it. If you see the examples, it also concerns complete smear campaigns, people who are canceled. The experiences that people share are quite intense. But those involved find it difficult to accept that certain behavior is unacceptable. So they tend to say that it wasn’t that bad, or that it didn’t happen that often. But if you take everything together, there is indeed a pattern.”

Ellemers: “I found it remarkable that some people were in an uproar last week because the report also mentioned physical and sexual misconduct. As if that makes it worse. We deliberately made no distinction, because we are not concerned with what exactly happened, but how many people were affected by it. You cannot always read the severity from the nature of an event. For example, it is more serious if it happens again and again. Yet that is how the outside world views it. Scientific research shows that it is often the other way around: the subcutaneous feeling that you are crazy yourself, which that comedian expressed so beautifully, is much more harmful. Because it undermines people’s performance and self-confidence.”

How does the large number of reports of inappropriate behavior in the past year compare with the employee satisfaction of 7.6 for the entire media sector?

Laagland: “Don’t be blinded by an average employee satisfaction figure, is one of our recommendations. Because you see that people who have experienced transgressive behavior, as victims or witnesses, judge their work more negatively than people who have not experienced it.”

Naomi Ellemers, you have also conducted research into inappropriate behavior in the academic world. Is the situation there comparable to the media?

Ellemers: “We did not make that comparison. But in principle it applies to many sectors. I receive responses from colleagues who say: we can adopt this report one-on-one in our organization. So we are not saying that the problem in public broadcasting is greater than elsewhere. For example, I think there are many similarities between art, science and media. These are all sectors where people really want to work. Where they depend on opportunities they get. And where iconic figures have a lot of influence on the careers of young people. A lot of informal leadership, risk of abuse of power, people who come out on top of the content, not because they are such good managers. These are all known risk factors.”

The discussion about cross-border behavior in Hilversum often concerns short-term contracts. But the report shows that there is no clear connection between this.

Ellemers: “Most people seem to have stopped reading at chapter two: what a terrible thing that happened. While the added value of the report actually only begins in the subsequent chapters. For example, we discuss some misconceptions, including about temporary contracts. Because if you look into that, it turns out that it plays a role, but that it is not the main cause.”

Laagland: “Initially we assumed that people with temporary contracts would not dare to speak out. And that the solution could be to give everyone a permanent contract. But that’s just not the solution. The fact that you work with many self-employed people means that as an employer you simply have to be extra alert to create an environment where people feel safe to dare to speak out.”

Ellemers: “People also came to us and said that despite their permanent contract, they still managed to work out the organization from one day to the next. So what good is that? And if that happens three times, you think: that permanent contract is worth nothing. Maybe if you want to get a mortgage, but not if you want to be sure of your job.”

Matthijs van Nieuwkerk came under fire last week after new accusations about his DWDD time. Do you think it is a shame that it is now about people and not about structures?

Ellemers: “If those involved can only read the report and ask whether they will encounter problems because of what the committee has found, then we have not achieved our goal. Because our report was not written to accuse or exonerate people. It is intended to reveal patterns and encourage people to reflect on their own role.”

The report comes at a time when the public broadcaster is under fire. Some political parties want to make significant cuts. Is that a solution? Or have previous cuts been part of the problem?

Laagland: “I think that the change in the law in 2016 was really part of the problem. The way in which the NPO and the broadcasters now function in relation to each other. This was also noted by the Van Geel committee. So I would be very careful with that. In my opinion, public broadcasting is one of the greatest anchors in our democracy. If you start making cuts again, the pressure on public broadcasting will only increase. And if people feel unsafe, the core values ​​of the NPO, such as journalistic freedom, are also at risk. But hey, that’s ultimately up to politics.”